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Two men get life sentences for murder of black teen


This news story was published on January 5, 2012.
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By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times –

LONDON — Two white men were given life sentences Wednesday for the racially motivated murder of a black teenager nearly 19 years ago in a case that rocked British society and led to a major shakeup within Scotland Yard.

However, the men are expected to serve far less time in prison for the killing of Stephen Lawrence, the 18-year-old who was stabbed to death while waiting for a bus in South London in April 1993.

Lawrence was the victim of an unprovoked attack by thugs who shouted racial epithets as they punched and knifed him. A botched police investigation followed, undermined by what an official inquiry said was pervasive racism within the police force itself.

The case eventually sparked significant changes in police practices and Scotland Yard’s relationship with minority communities, proving as pivotal for London authorities as the Rodney G. King beating and its aftermath were for policing in Los Angeles.

But justice came much later for Lawrence’s family, especially his parents, who waged a tireless campaign to bring their son’s killers to trial. It took new DNA evidence unearthed a few years ago to secure murder convictions Tuesday against Gary Dobson and David Norris, members of a racist gang who were identified from the beginning as suspects in Lawrence’s killing.

At London’s famous Old Bailey courthouse, Justice Colman Treacy sentenced the two men, now in their 30s, for committing a “terrible and evil crime … for no other reason than racial hatred.”

“Neither of you has shown the slightest regret or remorse. Each of you has lied to the court,” Treacy said Wednesday. “This is not a case where there is any mitigation available for contrition.”

Despite the life sentences, the judge was obliged by law to take into account the fact that both men were minors at the time of the attack, which means that Dobson could be freed after slightly more than 15 years in prison and Norris after 14.

Three other men believed to have taken part in the slaying have not been charged. But officials hope either Dobson or Norris will now be persuaded to break the pact of silence that police say has prevailed among Lawrence’s attackers from the outset and stymied attempts to prosecute them.

“These people now realize that they have been found out,” Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, said after the sentences were handed down, urging Dobson and Norris “give up the rest of the people” who killed his son.

His ex-wife, Doreen Lawrence, the slain youth’s mother, thanked the judge for issuing the harshest sentences possible. “There’s no hiding behind their ages,” she said.

Compounding the couple’s grief, the five chief suspects in the case strutted at an inquest into their son’s death, refusing to answer questions on grounds of self-incrimination and behaving in an “arrogant and dismissive” fashion, a subsequent report found.

A famous front page from the Daily Mail tabloid published the five men’s photos under the headline “Murderers” in huge letters, challenging them to sue if the paper was wrong. None of the men has done so.

Just as hurtful as the suspects’ insouciance was the lackadaisical investigation by detectives who initially denied there was any racial component to the attack, mishandled forensic evidence, ignored important witnesses and gave higher priority to another case involving a black man wanted on suspicion of theft.

In 1999, an official commission found that Scotland Yard suffered from “institutional racism” and made dozens of recommendations for the force to improve its treatment of minority communities, including recruiting more ethnic minority officers.

The Lawrences, stung by official bungling, launched their own privately initiated prosecution of Dobson and two other alleged attackers, but the effort fell apart in court. Their son’s violent death remained a cold case until 2007, when a new review of the physical evidence found microscopic bits of blood and hair found on articles of clothing taken from Dobson and Norris at the time of the killing.

The blood and hair were identified as Lawrence’s through sophisticated DNA techniques not available during the initial investigation. That appeared to clinch the prosecution’s case in the trial just concluded, during which jurors also saw police surveillance videotapes from 1994 showing Dobson and Norris uttering racial slurs and boasting of their desire to “skin” black people, torture them and shoot their limbs off.

Regarding Dobson, who was acquitted in the Lawrences’ private prosecution, the new trial was possible only because Parliament revoked the principle of “double jeopardy,” which holds that a person once acquitted cannot be tried for the same crime a second time.

That principle still holds in the United States. But British lawmakers, partly spurred by the Lawrence case, voted to set aside the double-jeopardy rule in 2003, saying that second trials could be justifiable when new evidence came to light.

The Lawrence murder also prompted Parliament to pass hate-crime legislation, increasing penalties for racially motivated crimes. But those stiffened penalties could not be retroactively applied to Dobson and Norris at Wednesday’s sentencing.

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